Working through the last decade or so of Wilberian integral theory (which I’m doing in preparation for the upcoming group reading of Integral Ecology) is no small challenge.
Ken Wilber’s been an incredibly prolific writer, publishing scores of books over the last 15 years in addition to scattered shorter materials of various kinds, including new forewords and revisions of older works (in his eight-volume Collected Works series), summaries, interviews (including auto-interviews), several hundred pages of manuscript materials from work in progress, and much more. Beyond that, there is a virtual industry of commentary, discussion, critical evaluation, application, and revision of his work by followers and detractors alike — most of which, fortunately, is readily found online.
For those not familiar with transpersonal theory — an outgrowth of the humanistic psychology of the 1960s and 1970s that focuses on studying and interpreting nonordinary states of consciousness — Wilber’s name would not have been very well known back in the early 1990s. He was considered a leader in that field, his structural-hierarchical model of human development being one of the two main approaches vying for paradigmatic ascendancy in it.*
The publication of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (1995) changed all that: it was a substantial leap forward in terms of broadening his project. Since then Wilber has become known, to many, as an important “theorist of everything.” His fans ostensibly range from Al Gore and Bill Clinton to Deepak Chopra, Vaclav Havel, and the filmmaking Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix).
This post is my third on integralism (following this and this). It is intended to address a few common critiques, concerns, and responses to Wilber’s work, and to discuss a few issues that may be useful to keep in mind as this blog and several others take on the mammoth, and strongly Wilberian, Integral Ecology.
A few points to clear the air
Two kinds of responses seem to be fairly common when one inquires about what people think of Ken Wilber.
The first, typical among academics, is something along the lines of “who’s he?” or (though never stated quite like this) “why should I be interested in that?” The reason for this sort of response is that Wilber’s name does not circulate widely in the main currents of scholarly discourse; and two of the important reasons for that, in turn, are (i) that he doesn’t publish in scholarly journals and (ii) that the scope of his work is so broad that if he tried to publish in scholarly journals, he would likely get nailed on one thing or another in the peer-review process. His work simply raises too many questions in too many fields at once.
Furthermore, due to the nature of his earlier writings (before about 1995) and the venues in which they were published (mainly the popular Buddhist publisher Shambhala, the Theosophical publishing house Quest Books, and the journal Wilber co-founded, ReVision), he had established a reputation as a “new agey” or “new paradigm” thinker alongside the likes of Deepak Chopra, Fritjof Capra, and others in that vein, none of whom capture a great deal of attention in academe. This association of Wilber with such authors makes historical sesnse, but readers of his more recent work know how significantly Wilber deviates from the great bulk of “new paradigm” thought.
The second response, typical among those who know something about him, is something negative either about Wilber’s personality (e.g., that he’s arrogant, full of himself, etc.) or about his organization, the Integral Institute, and its satellites (that they’re cultish, fawning, commercial hucksters, etc.).
Evidence for the first claim would seem to lie in Wilber’s perceived attitude regarding his world-historical importance and in his often vehement responses to many critics. (I’m not particularly bothered by the swearing and the cowboy imagery as much as I squirm at lines like this:
“Not only did I grok what the postmodernists were saying, I have given, in dozens of writings, what numerous experts and specialists in the field (including experts on Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, among others) have called some of the best, and in a few instances, THE best, treatment of these topics.”
Umm, oops. But okay, we’re all entitled to say some stupid things now and then, so maybe we can cut him some slack there.)
Evidence for the second claim — about the Integral Institute and its offshoots — lies simply in the style by which they sell their wares, and perhaps the fact that people who aren’t employed by universities have to make a living somehow. I don’t have much to say about that, except that other philosophers might learn a trick or two from them about how to make philosophical ideas relevant to contemporary lives.
With regard to his relationship to critics, the story is more complicated than many critics make it sound. He talks to a lot of people — interviewing them, being interviewed by them, and so on — and he has in fact changed his mind a lot and developed his ideas in radically new directions over the years, often in response to critiques. In the process, he has come up with the most wide-ranging and integrated philosophical-psychological-sociocultural-cosmological synthesis I have ever seen.
How well this synthesis holds together is another question. Answering that question requires the kind of analysis and scholarship that few are prepared to take up.
The above two responses are certainly not the only responses you will hear — Wilber has many followers, and a great many readers — but they are worth mentioning at the outset, if only as to indicate that I’m aware of them. Fortunately, both responses are fairly peripheral to the value of Wilber’s ideas, so now that I’ve mentioned them, I can simply set them aside and not comment on them further.
The status of Wilber’s ‘Integral’ project
There are a few book-length studies of his work, but none, to my knowledge, are up-to-date nor informed enough about his sources to be much more useful than his own summaries of his work. Frank Visser’s, for instance, is outdated, and raises questions by the simple fact that its author has gone from being one of Wilber’s most visible fans to being one of his most visible critics. Jeff Meyerhoff’s online book is more critical, and quite useful, but it’s just a start, and, by some judgments, a tad lop-sided. The few others I’ve seen (none of them published by reputable scholarly publishers) are generally worse.
Given the immense range of Wilber’s source materials, a study of his use of those sources would end up being at least as long as the use that he makes of them — it would, in other words, be like Borges’s map of the empire that is physically coextensive with the empire itself.
But since I’ve mentioned a few critical views, I should in fairness enlist a view in his favor here. The following is Jack Crittenden’s, expressed in a Foreword to one of Wilber’s books. I think it accurately captures the scope of what Wilber is trying to accomplish:
Wilber’s approach is the opposite of eclecticism. He has provided a coherent and consistent vision that seamlessly weaves together truth-claims from such fields as physics and biology; the ecosciences; chaos theory and the systems sciences; medicine, neurophysiology, biochemistry; art, poetry, and aesthetics in general; developmental psychology and a spectrum of psychotherapeutic endeavors, from Freud to Jung to Piaget; the Great Chain theorists from Plato and Plotinus in the West to Shankara and Nagarjuna in the East; the modernists from Descartes and Locke to Kant; the Idealists from Schelling to Hegel; the postmodernists from Foucault and Derrida to Taylor and Habermas; the major hermeneutic tradition, Dilthey to Heidegger to Gadamer; the social systems theorists from Comte and Marx to Parsons and Luhmann; the contemplative and mystical schools of the great meditative traditions, East and West, in the world’s major religious traditions. All of this is just a sampling…. [Thus] …if his approach is generally valid, it honors and incorporates more truth than any other system in history.
The coherence, consistency, and seamlessness of Wilber’s vision is precisely what critical readers need to assess. This has begun to happen in recent years: for instance, on blogs and web sites like IntegralWorld.net, in journals like the SUNY Press-published Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (which is closely aligned with Wilber’s institute) and the open-access Integral Review (which is not), and elsewhere. But it is far from a completed project.
Reading Wilber’s critics (like Meyerhoff), one might get the impression that once one starts poking holes into the woodwork, the whole edifice will come crumbling down with a great crashing thud. My own suspicion is, rather, that the strength of the building is not in its bricks (or its two-by-fours) but in the torsion of the architectural curves that hold it together. The bricks may be replaceable, while the building may remain quite habitable.
The point, I think, is that Wilber’s framework should not be seen as the “integral” culmination of knowledge gathered safely from so many paradigmatically settled fields of knowledge. Rather, it is an exciting, original, youthful, and (hopefully) very fluid research program that is still very much on the upswing.
The field of “integral studies” — integral theory, integral philosophy, integral ecology, integral politics, integral spirituality, integral business, integral strategies (?), and so on — is certainly not confined to the work of Ken Wilber. Both Wilber’s closest associates and his detractors have on numerous occasions spoken of an integral theory that is “beyond Wilber,” and that, I think, is where integral theory must head as it grows. But Wilber’s work remains the foundational inspiration of much, and probably most, of what goes on under these labels today.
Wilber’s move “beyond metaphysics”
There are many things in Wilber’s framework that I find attractive. His model of the universe as a “Great Nest of Being” (as he calls it) made up of developmental systems nested hierarchically within developmental systems, all of them evolving upward toward greater complexity, integrity, and consciousness, has an intuitive gracefulness to it.
Granted, part of me wonders who he’s kidding: aren’t we living in the shadow of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, of five centuries of anti-indigenous genocides and colonial misadventures, a few millennia of institutionalized misogyny, and in near-total denial of the ecological catastrophe that looms ahead of us? But Wilber acknowledges these things and simply argues, in response, that as things get better they also get worse: the opportunities for committing horrors and for recognizing them expand, maybe geometrically, alongside the opportunities for greater creative achievements. Each of the things mentioned is an achievement, even if it’s a negative one; they are signs that we haven’t gotten very good at wielding the power that our own place in the cosmos is handing us. But the fact that we can sit here and talk about them and dream of ways of overcoming them tells us the glass is at least half full (or empty, if you’re of a Buddhist persuasion).
Wilber’s framework has often seemed too cut-and-dried to me, his reliance on “orienting generalizations” from a huge diversity of fields seeming too selective and inadequately contextualized — which is, more or less, Meyerhoff’s main, book-long complaint. Because he’s working on such a huge canvas, Wilber relies a lot on summaries and generalizations, developing “hooks” to carry readers through the complex parts.
Like all hooks, sometimes his can grate. His use of the color-coded Spiral Dynamics model of human development is an example of a hook that grates on me. I dislike it because it seems simplistic, even mechanistic, in its attempt to find correspondences between stages of individual psychological and moral growth and, on the other hand, historical and prehistoric epochs in sociocultural evolution, and in its suggestion that history proceeds sequentially through these levels, with some people remaining at one station (e.g., amber) while others progress to the next (e.g., green) or even further (turquoise), and the ones behind being unable to judge those more advanced. This ladder model of development ultimately accounts for too little of the complexity of actual historical dynamics. Instead it lends itself to functioning as a kind of grand filing and ranking system, by which the rankers get to think they’ve mastered the whole maze, while others are caught up in it like so many rats not knowing whether to turn left or right. (Which, in turn, lends itself to the kinds of juvenile uses it gets put to in the rants, as in the one already mentioned.)
Color-coded filing systems are, of course, very useful for getting around in a messy world, but they aren’t the best way to build an ontology, epistemology, and ethic that would be adequate to the full complexity of that world. It would be too easy to say (as Wilber sometimes does say) that people like me dislike this hierarchical model of “levels of being and knowing” because we are North American “greens” (pluralistic, multicultural, postmodern) and thus prone to boomeritis: we don’t like hierarchies, don’t want to be told what to do, and so on. But little is proved by claiming that, and mostly it’s just a quick conversation-ender.
All that said, there are enough places in his writing, especially of the last decade or so, when he brings in the right amount of nuance to render these criticisms moot. In particular, his “post-metaphysical” turn (a.k.a. “Wilber-5“) — a term he uses in a more or less Kantian-Habermasian-Heideggerian sense — does away with assumptions about any ontological “givens” in the structure of the universe. Instead, it accepts that everything is relative and changing — relative and changing in some precisely nuanced and complex ways, which is what makes the framework so original — and our position as theorists of it no longer presumes an imagined objectivity. We are within it, and our knowledge of it is immanent and dependent on our position within it and perspective from which we observe it (at a given moment).
This is, for me, a substantial leap forward in Wilber-5. A few quotes can highlight what I’m getting at here, and it’s not coincidental that the quotes I’m choosing tend to be his most Whiteheadian and Peircian. All of these are taken from the “Integral Post-Metaphysics” appendix of Integral Spirituality (2006), but similar lines could be found in other writings, especially the excerpts from the manuscript of Part II of the Kosmos trilogy.
“Everybody is born at square one and has to develop through these now “fixed” levels, fixed only because they have settled into Kosmic habits of a Peircian nature; and all that would be required to account for the creation of ever-higher levels of being and knowing is an autopoietic, dissipative-structure tendency in the universe — “Eros” in a more poetic version. Not much more “metaphysics” is required than Whitehead’s “creative advance into novelty.” Yet this minimalist metaphysics can generate a Great Chain and all of its essential accoutrements without having to postulate pre-existing independent ontological structures of any variety.” (p. 240)
The universe, in this perspective, is an open, evolving whole, not teleologically preprogrammed for anything except to follow, more or less, the Whiteheadian cosmic “lure.” Why would it do this, and where would the lure come from? Wilber goes further than Whitehead in accounting for it through his notion of “involution,” which balances our “evolution” by, in effect, providing a counter-force to it.** Not only is the universe evolving toward something (greater complexity, etc.), but it has always been involving (“down”) toward something: toward greater manifestation in form, greater fullness, greater foundationality, if you will. The two balance each other out, like the movements of a wave (which perhaps, on some ultimate level, is exactly what the universe is — a wave in some larger ocean).
The evolution of “higher” life forms — of sentient awareness, mental and conceptual consciousness, global “worldspace,” and so on — co-arises (or as Wilber calls it, “tetra-arises”) with the relational structures that make these possible. Each of them, like everything in the universe, has an exterior form (our global society being such a form) and an interior one (represented by a consciousness that can be found in individuals and, to some extent, shared between individuals). All of them arise in response to conditions that have themselves arisen over time, also in response to previous conditions.
But unlike the strict materialist version of evolution, which says that it’s all just a matter of random mutations “naturally selected for,” for Wilber it’s a matter of creative response of entities responding to the “lures” of Eros felt in particular situations. The Eros (or Spirit, or whatever metaphor one prefers) is there because it is that which has involved into things in the first place.
“things’ do not exist in a pregiven world just lying around out there. Among many other things, they come into existence at various levels of developmental complexity and consciousness, and they are always already disclosed as particular perspectives, including (but not limited to) subjective I, objective it, intersubjective you/we, and interobjective its. [. . . ] So the Kosmic address of both the perceiver and the perceived must be indicated in order to situate the existence of anything in the universe.” (p. 253)
[. . .]
“There is no pregiven world, but simply a series of worlds that come into being (or co-emerge, or are tetra-enacted) with different orders of consciousness.” (p. 260)
[. . .]
“Matter is not the bottom level of the spectrum of being, but the exterior of every level of the spectrum, and so with each new rung, there is new matter, and the entire world changes, again.” (p. 261)
[. . .]
“As I have explained in detail elsewhere, all ‘good knowledge’ consists of at least 3 major strands:
1. An injunction (paradigm, exemplar, experiment, enaction), which is always of the form “If you want to know this, do this.”
2. An experience (datum, tuition, prehension, awareness), which is an illumination of the phenomena brought forth or enacted by the injunction.
3. A communal confirmation/rejection, which is a checking with others who have completed the first 2 strands.” [. . .]
“The meaning of an assertic or ontic statement is the means or injunctions of its enactment. Thus, for example, if I want to know if an elephant is sitting in my lap, then I must open my eyes and look (and we’ll take as given that others also do not see the elephant and that a majority of psychologists do not consider me ill or otherwise hallucinating). If I want to know what Susan felt like when she had her first experience of universal love, I must as a perceiving subject develop to at least an orange [i.e., rational, individual-reflexive, conscientious] altitude in both the cognitive line and the moral line. If I want to know why the Schroedinger wave equation collapses when a photon hits a neutron, then I must develop to at least a turquoise [global, universalizing, construct-aware] level cognitive line, then study physics and mathematics for a decade or two, and then look.
“Similarly, if I want to know if there is a referent to the Signifier Ayin or Godhead, then one among the necessary routes is to take up a concentrated form of meditation and learn to be able to keep my mind focused unwaveringly on an object for at least 30 minutes. (The longest the average adult can focus on an object in an unbroken fashion is for less than one minute.) Once I do that, which usually takes daily practice for about 3 years, then I need to look in an unbroken fashion at the nature of phenomenal reality as it arises moment to moment and see if there is, as directly seen or cognized in my own consciousness, anything that appears to be an empty ground to all of them. And then I need to compare this reality with my ordinary state of consciousness and decide which seems more real. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, a clear majority of those who complete this experiment report that the signifier Ayin or Emptiness has a real referent as disclosed by injunctive paradigm. That is, those who are qualified to make the judgment agree that it can be said that, among other things, Spirit is a vast infinite Abyss of Emptiness, out of which all things arise.” (pp. 267-8)
The latter set of quotes covers a lot that this blog has tried to say about mind, matter, and knowledge: that mind and matter are two sides of the same substance, that substance itself is (relational) process, that knowledge is always situated, embedded, embodied, and enacted, and so on. So for all my questions and frequent misgivings about the details, I think that Wilber’s project, in its post-metaphysical/integral variant, is very much aligned with the basic propositions of process-relational philosophy. It is a complex and sophisticated development of such a philosophy, and warrants attention from anyone interested in process-relational metaphysics. (Or “post-metaphysics” if you prefer.)
It can and ought to be criticized, revised, and/or refined in both the details and the overall picture. But there may not be another writer who encompasses as much as Wilber does into a metaphysic (in the best sense of the word) and a practical philosophy for living in the twenty-first century. Whatever its weaknesses, it’s a good example of what philosophy should try to do, but too often doesn’t bother any more.
*Ken Wilber in Dialogue (1998) presents a good overview of the debates between, among others, Wilber and representatives of the other main rival paradigm, which can loosely be characterized as “dynamic-spiral” (or even Jungian). Its leading representatives were one-time leader in LSD research Stanislav Grof and (my favorite of the bunch) Michael Washburn.
**Wilber gets this idea of involution primarily, it seems, from the Neoplatonists, later western esotericists (including Theosophists), and Sri Aurobindo Ghose.